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Happiness Through Ubuntu

Today’s guest writer is Grisha Rodchenko, a writer based in Wisconsin. 

A friend of mine once said, “giving is a selfish act.” She is 100% correct. Last July, when I bought several bottles of water for my fellow passengers waiting in the 93-degree heat for their connecting buses, that was indeed selfish, but the act was more than that. For me, that act was about attempting to break through isolation and fear, and through action say, “we all matter.”

In Yochai Benkler’s 2011 book The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest, the author cites both empirical and narrative evidence that compassion for other human beings is not merely about being kind to others but is actually an act of survival—a quality that 68% of the world’s population is genetically predispositioned to nurture and harness. More recently, studies have shown that this simple act of giving induces something known as a “helper’s high.” Instant happiness.

And it isn’t just us humans who honor cooperation and compassion: the animal kingdom provides countless examples from every continent. Videos online about compassionate and cooperative elephants and other animals go viral on YouTube. With such popularity, one must wonder why human beings across the world are so vicariously fascinated by this behavior. Is it that people secretly crave cooperation and compassion? Is there something deep inside every sentient being seeks to express?

The genetic predisposition for cooperation and compassion, recognized by humans in civilizations thousands of years ago is succinctly expressed in the Zulu term “Ubuntu.”  Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu referred to Ubuntu as “The essence of being human. It speaks to the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound in yours. They (people) have a self-assurance that comes from knowing that the belong to a greater whole.”

And where is Ubuntu today? In the technology driven 21st Century, in a society that values convenience, speed and planned obsolescence over face-to-face chats with friends, have we, over each generation, grown further away from our roots of being human?  Isolation, fear, and depression occupy spaces in our lives formerly housing families and community.  The benchmarks of being human in a world of Facebook and Instagram, where often only the prettiest and happiest pictures make it online, raise a fictional bar of happiness to unattainable heights. The modern world of material-self, of deleting, cropping, photo-shopping, surfing the internet, or acquiring more possessions to find happiness has brought humanity and the planet we love to the brink of destruction. Is there any hope left?

One hopeful truism about humans is that we are a resilient species.  All across America, there are small but growing pockets where discontent with modern society has been channeled into creative, positive solutions. From farm cooperatives, and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) to communities adopting Gross National Happiness principles, and even the growing popularity of in person board games —people are muting technology and materialism and seeking out other people. This trend toward supporting local businesses and one another is bringing neighbors closer together.

One great example of Ubuntu alive and well can be found in Oakland, California.  The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), part of the Schumaker Center for a New Economics,  is on the leading edge of bringing communities together and keeping it local. BALLE believes in people over profits. They insist, building strong, local relationships trumps competition. And isn’t that the essence of who we are as human beings? The giving self, so intimately tied to our happiness and those in our community.

Ubuntu, I am because of you. And that makes me happy.

Editor’s Note: BALLE is active in communities nationwide. Look up your local chapter at

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